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There are several types of treatment for cancer. The main cancer treatments are surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Other treatments include hormonal therapy, targeted therapy, immunotherapy and stem cell transplants.

Cancer treatments are given by cancer specialists (oncologists) who specialize in radiation therapy or chemotherapy and other drug therapies. Surgeons use their skill in doing surgery to remove tumours.

The type of treatment you have will depend on many factors, including:

  • the type of cancer you have
  • the stage of the cancer
  • your personal preferences
  • your age

Treatment plans

Sometimes people who have the same cancer will be given different treatments. Some people will have only 1 treatment but most people will have a combination of treatments such as surgery with chemotherapy or radiation therapy or both.

When a combination of treatments is used, they may be given together or at different times.

First line therapy is the first, most common or preferred (standard) treatment given for a type of cancer. It is also called primary therapy or primary treatment.

Neoadjuvant treatment is given before other treatments such as surgery. It may be given if a tumour is too large to be removed by surgery. It may include chemotherapy, radiation therapy or hormone therapy.

Adjuvant treatment is given to destroy cancer cells left behind after surgery and reduce the risk that the cancer will come back (recur).

Treatment goals

Treatment is given for different reasons. Sometimes, the goal of treatment can change over time.

Prevention (prophylaxis)

Treatment is given to prevent the growth of cancer cells or to remove precancerous tissue that could turn into cancer.


Treatment is given to cure the cancer.


Treatment is given to control the cancer and stop it from growing and spreading. It also reduces the risk of the cancer coming back.

Palliative care

When the cancer can’t be cured or controlled, treatment may be given to relieve pain or ease the symptoms of advanced cancer.

Types of treatment

Treatment can be broadly divided into the following types of therapies.

Local therapy is directed at a specific part of the body and is often used when cancer is only in that area. Radiation therapy and surgery are both local treatments.

Systemic therapy travels through the bloodstream to reach cancer cells throughout the body. Many chemotherapy drugs are systemic treatments that are absorbed by the body’s cells and tissues.

Targeted therapy uses drugs to target specific molecules (such as proteins) on cancer cells or inside them. By targeting these molecules, the drugs stop the growth and spread of cancer cells and limit harm to normal cells.

Side effects of treatment

Side effects can happen with any type of treatment for cancer, but everyone’s experience is different. Not everyone has side effects or experiences them in the same way. Side effects can occur during or after treatment. They may go away quickly or last for a long time.

Sources of drug information

Details on specific drugs change regularly. Find out more about sources of drug information and where to get details on specific drugs.